Whether or not you’ve ever been to a county fair, you probably have a rough idea of what you’d find there: maybe some people showing off their homemade jam, maybe a Ferris wheel, definitely someone getting creative with a deep fryer. But in the late 19th century, as Livia Gershon recently wrote in JSTOR Daily, fairs had another, odder staple: babies, displayed in shows, like pies or cows or prize-winning vegetables.
The first of these so-called “baby shows,” Gershon wrote, was in Ohio in 1854, with 127 infants competing for prizes. According to a 2008 paper by Northwestern University professor Susan Pearson, highlighted by Gershon and originally published in the Journal of Social History, the phenomenon spread quickly from there: “By the end of the century they were a commonplace form of entertainment at both agricultural and mechanics’ fairs, urban theaters, exhibition halls, and fundraising events,” Pearson wrote, “and well before women competed for the crown of Miss America there, Atlantic City played host to an annual baby show on its boardwalk.” Eventually, baby shows made their way across the ocean to several European cities, though the public considered them “a distinctly American, if slightly vulgar, novelty.”
Often, the shows got more specific than just rewarding the cutest baby: “Some baby shows also placed a premium on novelty,” Pearson wrote, and handed out prizes in categories like “the best multiple birth set, the fattest baby, the tiniest baby, or the baby with the reddest hair.” Sometimes the winner was decided by audience vote; other times, panels of men, or men and childless women (who were thought to be more objective) acted as judges.
But as strange as baby shows may sound to modern ears, as Gershon noted, we’re not that far removed from the practice after all: A century and a half later, we’ve just moved the venue from county fairs to Facebook, where proud parents can show off photos of their little ones to a willing audience.